Remembering bible study participants at Mother Emanuel EME Church in Charleston, SC, victims of a 2015 mass murder, by a white supremacist.
This past week, three elders were murdered at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, AL. A month earlier, one man was killed and five others injured at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, CA.
These church killings are in addition to the widely reported mass shootings in East Buffalo, NY, and Uvalde, TX, and to SEVENTY OTHER MASS SHOOTINGS between May 14 and June 16. (Mass shooting data at Gun Violence Archive). Many victims have been Asian, Black, and Latine.
No words beyond a request to recall those lost, all who mourn for them, and all who continue to organize in their memories, in your practice this weekend. Here are some names of those lost, recently and at this time in years past.
June 17, 2015 — Mother Emanuel
Pastor (and SC Senator) Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, 41 Cynthia Graham Hurd, 54 Susie Jackson, 87 Ethel Lee Lance, 70 Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49 Tywanza Sanders, 26 Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74 Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45 Myra Thompson, 59
June 16, Vestavia Hills, AL — Saint Stephen’s Episcopal
Walter Rainey, 84; Sarah Yeager, 75 third victim, 84, died at the hospital
For the record: This is not considered a “mass shooting,” as defined by the Gun Violence Archive (four or more injured, exclusive of the alleged perpetrator). A news story from WVTM
May 15, Laguna Woods, CA — Geneva Presbyterian
Dr. John Cheng, Geneva Presbyterian Church.
Five others injured in this Taiwanese church. A news story from Heavy.com
May 14, East Buffalo, NY — TOPS Supermarket
Ruth Whitfield, 86 Pearly Young, 77 Katherine Massey, 72 Deacon Heyward Patterson, 67 Celestine Chaney, 65 Aaron Salter, Jr., 55 Roberta A. Drury, 32 Margus D. Morrison, 52 Andre Mackneil, 53 Geraldine Talley, 62
June 11 — 18-year-old Saige Ballard June 12 — 34-year-old Alphonzo Jones June 13 — 17-year-old Xavier Spruill June 15 — 30-year-old Israel Mattocks June 15 — 16-year-old Deandre Coleman June 16 — 42-year-old Dimaris Smith June 16 — 29 year-old Christian Gabriel Monje (May 30 shooting)
DC shooting yahrzeits this week
June 17 — 28-year-old Demonte Thompson
June 18 — 42-year-old Everette Faison
June 18 — 52-year-old Benson Thorne Sr.
June 11 — 32-year-old Kevin Redd
June 11 — 18-year-old Saige Ballard
June 13 — (Mass shooting: 5 injured, two killed) 19-year-old Zymia Joyner 19-year-old Rashard Waldo
June 14 — 21-year-old Albert Smith,
June 13 — 24-year-old Devin Butler
June 14 — 43-year-old Damon Bell
June 15 — 37-year-old Richfield Chang
June 16 — 30-year-old Arkeem Jackson
June 19 — 29-year-old Juan Marcell Grant
June 11 — 24-year-old Daymond Chicas
June 12 — 24-year-old Syles Kealoha
June 12 — 22-year-old Marqueese Alston (police shooting)
June 13 — 43-year-old Larry Harrell
June 14 — 23-year-old Dontae Mitchell
June 12 — 33-year-old June 14 — 28-year-old Julius Leroy Foreman June 16 — 25-year-old Malik Hill
June 14 — 20-year-old Devonte Crawford June 18 — 40-year-old Stephanie Goodloe
Another friend suggested, “speaking as a pet parent who has lost pets,” that an appropriate response is a donation to a pet shelter.
Still another said that kaddish is a “public affirmation of belief in the power and sovereignty of the Almighty, even in times of grief,” so why not? It should be noted, however, that this suggestion is contrary to a number of prominent views about the recitation of Mourners’ Kaddish. See also this general post on Jews and Pets from My Jewish Learning.
This past Thursday, June 2, would have been Hadiya Pendleton’s 19th birthday. She was killed before her sixteenth in a Chicago park on January 29, 2013 – making news at the time because she’d just returned from performing in Obama’s second Inaugural Parade.
That spring, Hadiya’s classmates at King College Prep started a nonviolence effort, known as Project Orange Tree, in her memory. That evolved into #WearOrange for Gun Violence Awareness Day, now observed nationally on June 2. In the spirit of this awareness day, I offer a glimpse into the world of Hadiya and the three friends who were with her when she was shot, taken from a 2013 Chicago Trib article:
The next day, Kyra was back in gym class. As always. The teacher was taking attendance. As always.As he proceeded through the alphabet toward the P’s, she wondered: Would he call Hadiya Pendleton?
When he didn’t, students cried.
…And like the rest of Hadiya’s friends, Kyra counted the Tuesdays since Hadiya died.
“If you do run away,” Hadiya promised, “you can come to my house. I can tell my mom the whole situation, and she’ll understand.”
With Hadiya gone, Danetria wondered, “Who am I going to talk to now?”
….A month after Hadiya died, Danetria turned 16. It was coincidentally, Tuesday, week four. No balloons, no sweet 16 cake, just a quiet birthday dinner with [her boyfriend] Lawrence and his mom…. ….
…Over the next few weeks, [Klyn] wrote letters to Hadiya in a notebook.
One day, bored in math class at [her new school], she was writing a letter when she started to cry.
“What’s wrong?” her classmates asked. If she were still at King, she thought, they’d know.
She wrote letters to the two young men charged in the killings, too. She told them she feels bad for them, bad that they have been so warped by a system that would make them think killing was OK.
She never sent the letters, and she lost the notebook, but it felt good to lay her anger and confusion out on the lined pages.
The Tuesdays passed, her loneliness didn’t…. ….
…[The three teens no longer saw each other regularly when they met up in spring 2013.] It was, coincidentally, the 13th Tuesday after Hadiya’s death, but they don’t count Tuesdays so much anymore. They count months. Monday made three months.
— Jennifer Delgado, Bridget Doyle and Mary Schmich
much more in the thorough Tribune article, including video links
The article’s time-counting motif seems fitting for the period of the Omer, when we enumerate the days and the weeks between Passover and Shavuot. June 4, for example, was 42 days of the Omer, making six weeks. Some would also call it the day of malchut b’yesod — translated as something like “nobility in bonding” — based on a mystical counting system.
Similarly, the losses associated with Hadiya’s death were reckoned in small and large ways – in gym class and in long-term desolation — as well as in ways harder to express.
“That bullet did a lot more than just kill my baby,” Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton has said.
But we can also count the ways, small and large and harder to express, that Hadiya’s bright spark continues to inspire conversation and thought, prayer and action. The toll of shootings like Hadiya’s — psychologically, economically, educationally, and otherwise — is staggering. But the blessing of her memory is enormous, too.
“Who will confront the wickedness of all the raw racial hatred marinating in this free land?” asked Rev. T. Anthony Spearman during the North Carolina Council of Churches recent “Seminar on Race, Power, and Privilege.” The powerful sermon begins with a text from 2 Samuel 21: When her sons and five other men are subject to an extrajudicial execution and left without burial, Rizpah mounts a single-handed protest. She maintains a vigil for six months — “risking her own safety and sanity,” as Rev. Spearman describes it — until King David is finally moved to order proper burial for all seven men.
“Back around 9th Century BCE, [Rizpah] would have been my choice for mother of the year,” Rev. Spearman declares. “In all of antiquity there may of a certainty be none as devoted, radical or courageous.” He elaborates:
In her world, she had no authority. Hers was a voiceless life. She was devoid of power…a victim of what seems to be this nation’s cherished legacy, the hierarchy of human values that are known as …classicism, sexism, and racism.
Allan Aubrey Boesak says this mother does what she does — risks, resists, and reconciles an entire nation — all by her lonesome and silent self. She demonstrates how to truly beat a sword into a plowshare by doing justly, loving mercy and walking justly with her God.
…[Rizpah’s witness] is not dissimilar to that of Sybrina Fulton, Lesley [McSpadden] Brown, Samaria Rice..
From the beginning of the harvest til the rain fell down, her motherly heart was broken but her devotion was fully intact. For about six months R risks her safety and sanity to drive away the vultures of viciousness, the vultures of vulgarity, the vultures of victimization…. the jackals of injustice…
…although in anguish for the dead, her actions were on behalf of the living…only two of the young men were her sons, she fought on behalf of them all.
— from T. Anthony Spearman’s April 23 sermon (full sermon below)
Rev. Spearman notes that Rizpah’s story is not currently in Christianity’s common lectionary — it is also missing from annual Jewish reading cycles — and suggests its inclusion so that more people would be prompted to follow her example. Meanwhile, Rev. Spearman calls us:
Our times are in search of those with spirit of Rizpah, those who will rise up and do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God, those who will stand against the ones who keep making and upholding unjust laws.
Is there anyone willing to bend the moral arc just a little bit more?
Anyone willing to repent for the deaths of so many of our sons and our daughters?
Who will shoo the vultures away from the corpse of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray?
Who will discourage the jackals from ravaging the transgender body of Zella Ziona?
…demanding the repeal of House Bill 2?
Who will rise up and…confront the wickedness of all the raw racial hatred marinating in this land?
It’s time for us to confront racism. It’s time for us to confront privilege, it’s time for us to confront power.
— Spearman (full sermon in video below) NC Council of Churches’ Critical Issues Seminar: Race, Power, and Privilege
Six Months is a Long Vigil
Six months is a long time for the sort of vigil Rizpah kept: “Can you just imagine the gruesome scene with those seven blood-covered bodies…,” Rev. Spearman asks, offering graphic details and concluding with “and the noble Rizpah protecting them from the scavengers waiting to gorge themselves on those corpses.”
Six months is also a long time for the sort of vigil Beverly Smith has been keeping: Alonzo Fiero (Zo) Smith, age 27, died in custody of DC special police officers (SPO), November 1, 2015, in confusing circumstances that included no criminal charges; his death was ruled a homicide with compression of the torso (SPO knelt on his back, for one example) a contributing factor. For six months, Ms. Smith has been demanding accountability for what happened to her son. And, just like Rizpah, and the mothers of many other victims of police brutality, Ms. Smith is demanding justice for others as well as her own child. She waits still.
On May 1, the sixth-month anniversary of Zo’s homicide, District residents joined Ms. Smith in a march and rally honoring his memory and demanding, in his name, community control of police. (Read about Zo’s case and his mother’s campaign in East of the River and the Washington Informer; learn about the Justice 4 Zo community)
And, of course, many parents and concerned community members — including some whom Rev. Spearman included in his sermon — have been keeping similar vigil in one way or another for much longer. (See, e.g., Listening to Voices of Grief and Struggle.) Many of those involved in these struggles have joined together in groups like Mothers Against Police Brutality and Coalition of Concerned Mothers.
Where Were Rizpah’s Neighbors?
Rev. Spearman and Allan Aubrey Boesak, whom he cites, note that Rizpah accomplished what she did “all by her lonesome and silent self.” This rightly characterizes the bible story and highlights the power of one individual to make a difference. But it leaves open the question of what Rizpah’s neighbors were doing — or not doing — for the months she kept her vigil alone:
Did neighbors just shake their heads at Rizpah while going about their own business? Were most people too caught up in demands of their own lives to involve themselves? Or, perhaps, fearing to speak out against King David? Or, just maybe, were some of Rizpah’s fellow citizens working elsewhere, in whatever ways were available to them, in support of her protest? Did groups organize solidarity actions that didn’t make it into Second Samuel?
Rizpah’s example of solo action is inspiring and important. And I would hope that each of us answers, “I will,” when faced with Rev. Spearman’s query: “Who will rise up and…confront the wickedness of all the raw racial hatred marinating in this land?” But I also pray that none of us is left, like Rizpah, to face those “vultures of viciousness” or “jackals of injustice” alone.
Rev. Spearman is incoming president of the NC Council of Churches and senior pastor of St. Philip African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Greensboro. He is active in the Forward Together Movement/Moral Mondays.
I had the honor of meeting and protesting with Rev. Spearman as part of a Black Lives Matter Die-In at the U.S. House of Representatives in early 2015.
The heartbreaking and indicting list goes on.
Activists and mourners from the DC area and around the country joined together last year, at this season, for “Voices of Grief and Struggle,” focusing on ten mothers who lost black sons in police custody around the U.S.
Since, then, sadly and to our shame, we have lost too many more in similar circumstances.
It is time to listen again to these mothers:
Deborah Copp Elliott, mother of Archie (“Artie”) Elliott III (Age 24)
Collette Flannigan, mother of Clinton Allen (Age 25)
Darlene Cain, mother of Dale Graham (Age 29)
Rev. Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, III (Age 22)
and the others who shared their powerful messages, “ Voices of Grief and Struggle,” in the nation’s capital last year.
It is also time to stand with Beverly Smith, mother of Alonzo Smith (age 27), discovered dead in custody of private security at Marbury Plaza Apartments in Southeast Washington, DC, on November 1.
Prayers and support are needed to uplift Beverly Smith (left, at December 1 vigil), all who knew Alonzo (“Zo”) Smith, all who seek justice for this young man and the many others lost to police brutality, and all who demand an end to this on-going horror.
In the DC area, consider joining the rally on December 12. (See flyer)
Chapter 21 of Deuteronomy (Shoftim: Deut 16:18-21:9) tells the Israelites what to do, upon entering the land, “if a corpse be found..the identity of the slayer not being known.” This is the elaborate ritual involving the Red Heifer in which the elders of the nearest town must be prepared to declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood…”
It turns out that this is not so simple, according to commentary across the centuries. First of all, many point out, neglect and indifference are sins and not easy ones to disavow.
Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, in the middle of the 20th Century:
“Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” (See The Prophets, and Essays on Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Essays edited by Susannah Heschel)
Ibn Ezra, the 12th Century Spanish commentator, writes that elders in Red Heifer cases have some responsibility for the fact of sinfulness was present in their town, without which the crimes could not have occurred.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th Century commentator, hypothesized that the only case where a body would be left out in the open, in apparent mocking defiance of public officials, would be if town officials had sent a hungry traveling stranger on his way without food and so he resorted to highway robbery. In this case, Hirsch says, the slayer is guiltless and the blameworthy ones are the officials who failed to exercise Jewish communal duty.
With this background in mind, here is information from the DC Children’s Law Center on factors contributing to child trauma:
One in four District of Columbia school-age children lives in poverty – which is defined as living on less than $24,000 for a family of four.
Over 4000 public school students were homeless in the 2013-2014 school year.
Adult incarceration is higher among DC residents than anywhere else in the country, leaving many children without one or more of their parents.
In DC, forty percent of high school students reported hearing or seeing violence in the previous year. This is far higher in some neighborhoods where gunshots and violent crime are constants.
A friend who ran two day camps in Southeast housing projects this summer had to help children cope with shootings in both locations. Heartbreaking, but not unusual occurrences there. She also returned to her office, after letting camp out early one day, to find a bullet hole in her window and a bullet lodged in the wall behind her desk.
Other friends are coping as we speak this morning (Temple Micah, August 22) with the aftermath of two juveniles shooting at one another on Tuesday, resulting in serious injuries to both boys and the death of the younger one’s mother. I witnessed the shooting death of a 21-year-old in another neighborhood on the same day, as did many people who were on that street, just going about their business, or inside the church while Amari Jenkins was shot outside.
A number of children witnessed the aftermath of both incidents. I know little about the third shooting of that same day. (All readers are encouraged to #SayThisName for each individual lost to homicide in DC; news stories about the high murder rate in DC and other US cities abound.)
A guest on the Education Town Hall, a weekly radio program I help organize, spoke on August 20 of how an annual back-to-school picnic he arranges now provides children with first-aid kits. Why would that be a back-to-school supply? Because, he says, these kids live in a war zone, and we need to acknowledge it.
The history and sociology of how this reality developed is too complex for this dvar Torah. But I think the Torah portion is asking us to consider our communal responsibility for helping children cope with situations that endanger them, lest we become as blameworthy as the elders in Hirsch’s hypothetical town.
Early childhood trauma affects the way the brain develops, and trauma in older children makes it difficult, if not impossible, for students to learn, often appearing in attention and behavioral problems in the classroom. The eventual result, according experts, is that trauma is transmitted, through further violence in many cases, if young people are not helped to transform it.
Taking positive action is important in recovering from the helplessness of a traumatic event, according to psychologists. I continue to seek ways to turn the energy of the tragedy I witnessed into something healing. Several possible courses of action, to help us take positive steps amidst this chaos, are shared here “Prayer, Advocacy, and #RippleEffect.”
Returning to the Red Heifer…
The Plaut commentary focuses on the practicality of the ritual, suggesting that it would attract so much attention as to enhance a sense of communal responsibility and help ensure that the murderer is apprehended.
The 15th Century Portuguese commentator, Abarbanel, said the shock value of the ritual would prevent people from forgetting the murder and keep alive the search for the offender.
However, the Mishnah (redacted around 200 CE) reports that the Red Heifer ritual had already ceased when crimes of murder multiplied to such a degree that the ritual was no longer feasible. I didn’t have the heart to read what Sanhedrin says about this (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 27b and forward), and I cannot imagine what the ancient Rabbis would make of DC and other major US cities today.
But it’s clear that we need some new approaches. And I’ve been thinking about that double “tzedek” in this week’s “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” [“Justice, Justice you shall pursue] (Deut 16:20).
Toward a New Approach
“Justice, justice you shall pursue”
Efforts like the #RippleEffect Campaign and Playing for Change Day are no expiation for murder, of course, and they’re no substitute for direct, head-on, immediate action in pursuit of justice. But we’re not all in a position to effectively take up that work —
The direct approach accounts for only the first “justice” in “justice, justice you shall pursue.” I suggest that the second “justice” calls for something completely different.
“Justice, justice you shall pursue”
Maybe a large public ritual PFC Day — one based on music, not blood — can capture a 21st Century world’s attention, to inspire some introspection and improvements, launch some creative energy and community building.
One of the reasons given for setting up judges at all the gates — at the start of this week’s Torah portion — is to ensure that justice enters into daily life in every location, a little like those ripples of kindness beginning from a variety of centers.
I also know that those of us facing the constant stress and grief of life today in some parts of the District — and what I experience is minor compared to what many others face — need the joy and release and uplifting power of music now more than ever.
Sometimes I image that music is the conduit the prophet Amos had in mind when he said that justice should roll down — or “well up” — like waters (Amos 5:24; see also below). Like water, music can exert its power with flexibility, perhaps in torrents or flood, perhaps through softer means, carrying us great distances, operating in ways we easily sense, and in ways below the surface and beyond our control that help bring transformation.
Stains and Ripples
The ritual of the Red Heifer warned the People that shrugging or hoping someone else would step up was not an option, reminded the elders that the conditions of their town could leave innocent blood on their hands.
This portion tells us that murdered blood pollutes the land and requires atonement.
I have watched a young man’s blood power-washed off concrete, and I can tell you the stain is still there.
We’re going to need some serious creative collective strength to address all the stains from all the murders in this town — and all the youth left to deal with what their elders should be managing.
Power washing doesn’t work.
Force doesn’t work.
More blood won’t work.
We need a new approach. For, now —
…Let there be songs to fill the air
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men
— Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead, 1970)
NOTE: Amos, Water, and Justice
I confess that I largely know the quote “until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a might stream,” from its use by Martin Luther King and, consequently, in Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial.
How fascinating and disconcerting, in this context, then, to be reminded just now of what Amos says about music —
Amos 5:כא שָׂנֵאתִי מָאַסְתִּי, חַגֵּיכֶם; וְלֹא אָרִיחַ, בְּעַצְּרֹתֵיכֶם. 21 I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
כב כִּי אִם-תַּעֲלוּ-לִי עֹלוֹת וּמִנְחֹתֵיכֶם, לֹא אֶרְצֶה; וְשֶׁלֶם מְרִיאֵיכֶם, לֹא אַבִּיט. 22 Yea, though ye offer me burnt-offerings and your meal-offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts.
כג הָסֵר מֵעָלַי, הֲמוֹן שִׁרֶיךָ; וְזִמְרַת נְבָלֶיךָ, לֹא אֶשְׁמָע. 23 Take thou away from Me the noise of thy songs; and let Me not hear the melody of thy psalteries.
כד וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה, כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן. 24 But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
A coffin in Egypt closes the Book of Genesis (Genesis 50:26), and the Exodus story is launched with a basket on the Nile (Exodus 2:3). Joseph’s death, which closely follows that of his father, Jacob (Gen 49:33), brings to an end the patriarchal stories. With Exodus, the focus shifts to the Israelite story, beginning with midwives Shifrah and Puah, Yocheved (Moses’ mother), Miriam (Moses’ sister), and Pharaoh’s daughter. Our focus is thus shifted, as one book ends and the next begins, from death to birth and from stories of individual and family struggle to a communal struggle toward liberation. So, too, in the United States today, we are moving:
from individual circles of mourning for black persons killed by police to a national movement against police brutality across the country, and
from disjoint demands addressing various forms of racial inequity to a collective struggle for racial justice.
In addition, men dominate at the close of Genesis, while Exodus opens with women in the lead; similarly, women have been primary leaders in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The Exodus story looks, on the face of it, like a violent and permanent parting of oppressed and oppressor peoples. But there are elements — particularly evident in watching what the women do at the beginning of the Exodus story — of the tale that can help us learn respectful coexistence.
Change of Mindset
Failure to dehumanize: The Egyptian midwives model for us at Exodus 1:15-22, using Pharaoh’s racist assumptions about the baby-popping Hebrew women to protect the Israelite community. (more on this)
Vision: Moses’ mother shows immense faith in her Egyptian neighbors, assuming that someone will rescue the child. And at least one Egyptian does rescue a child. Both women, thereby, refuse to dehumanize the other. (more on vision)
Passover is still months away (April 3-April 11, 2015). But Jews and Christians, along with others to whom the Exodus story speaks, can begin now to explore how we can use this ancient tale to change today’s realities, in our own communities and beyond. A few more “Passover Lessons” —
UPDATED 7/27 : See clarification on Aramaic and names of God below. Also see post-Siddur Study “More on Kaddish” resources and notes.
Is Kaddish — in its various forms — “prayer,” as in some combination of praise, request and/or submission to God? Or is it a recitation, more like the Shema? Is it a mystical device? Or punctuation, signaling a tone-shift in prayer services? None or all of the above? And where does “praying for the dead” figure? Explore.
Has this prayer, recited so often in Jewish services, become such a fixture that you no longer process its meaning? Were you, perhaps, taught to recite the ancient language without understanding the Aramaic words? Some creative translations and alternative readings can help break through the kaddish-trance.
Temple Micah’s lay-led Siddur Study group will be exploring the questions above and others on July 26. Materials are here to whet the appetite and for those who cannot join us in person. No background in Hebrew or prayer is needed. No preparation required. All are welcome.
(Meetings generally begin roughly half an hour after morning services end, i.e., sometime between noon and 12:30 p.m. in the summertime.)
Join Siddur Study at Temple Micah in person, July 26.
If you’re not in our physical neighborhood,
join us virtually by posting comments or questions here.